The Winds of Khalakovo
Bradley P. Beaulieu
We are once again digging into stuff I should have reviewed long ago. The Winds of Khalakovo was right at the top of my 2013 Must Read List, so I dutifully found a copy and read it over two or three days in early spring. I had a great time with the book and was bursting with things to say in a review when I finished; sadly for all involved, Khalakovo slipped further and further down the queue. Now here we sit at the end of summer, or at least the end of summer in the soggy northern climes, and I’m trying to remember all the fun things I wanted to write.
A bit of background first. I found out about Beaulieu some time ago when another favorite author, Aliette de Bodard, recommended his and Stephen Gaskell’s sf novella Strata. It was then offered in a giveaway on the excellent Far Beyond Reality blog, which was how I met FBR’s proprietor. I won it, then read, and reviewed it here. Beaulieu’s main work at the time of writing is the Lays of Anuskaya series, of which Khalakovo is the first. (The third volume got tied up in the ongoing-but-mostly-solved debacle at Nightshade Books, but is available from the author. That is a happy thing, since I would probably be outside the Nightshade office with a torch and pitchfork if denied the final resolution of the story.) Anuskaya is built on a foundation of Russian and Slavic culture, rather than the typical Western European, so there are going to be differences for those used to typical epic fantasy. I have no idea how “authentic” any of this is; Beaulieu could write about magical pandas gamboling across the taiga, call it Russian, and I would just nod my head wisely and keep reading.
The heart of Khalakovo is the world building. (The other heart, because this is a multi-hearted creature, is the swashbuckling, but that is a discussion for later.) Beaulieu’s creation has to rate near the top of recent fantasy, because Anuskaya is such a unique, intriguing world. The relationship between Khalakovo and the other duchies, each of them windswept, mountainous islands, is politically convincing. The windships are a tad extravagant, but well worth the extra magic and suspension of disbelief required to appreciate them. The conflict between the Landed and the Aramahn is also fascinating, mirroring more familiar colonial-aboriginal relations in our world. Finally, I wonder if the Maharraht, a fanatical, terrorist offshoot of the Aramahn, are purposely modeled on the PLO, or if those associations just come naturally because the Middle East is so prevalent in the news.
In spite of the complex political situation, two complimentary magic systems, several viewpoint characters, and an unconventional setting, Beaulieu refrains from indiscriminate info dumping. We learn about the world primarily by watching the characters in action, picking up important plot points from their eyes, rather than one person facing another and saying, “As you know Bob, when I cast this spell…” The author asks his readers to take him on faith, trusting that all will become clear in time. This isn’t an ideal approach for everyone it seems, but I enjoy it when a book respects my intelligence. It’s a delicate tightrope of course, since too little explanation leaves everyone confused, but too much hand holding is boring. For me, Beaulieu juggles things perfectly. Reasonable minds will differ, but anyone willing to take the leap should find their questions resolved by the end.
Moving on to the other heart, let’s talk about the buckles that are swashed. There are windships, demons, plagues, terrorists, assassinations, backstabbing, betrayals, and dancing. Beaulieu has said in interviews that he tries to keep some bit of action, or at least tension, on every page; the book is almost bursting at the seams with excitement. The last third or so barrels along like a maglev train, dispatching obstacles in a similar fashion to a locomotive humming along at 300 miles per hour. If those obstacles happen to include one’s dinner, or an insistent child, or crucial test preparation, well, Bradley P. Beaulieu makes no apologies. If volume two had been waiting for me on my bookshelf, I would have read nothing else until it too was complete. (It was not, and various commitments ambushed me, but I will be getting to it soon.)
Khalakovo is some of the best fantasy I have read this year. Regular readers will know that I appreciate my books to be off-kilter, political, and rational, so it’s no surprise that Khalakovo meets with my approval. It won’t be too long before I mow down the second and third books in the series; my biggest hope after that is that Beaulieu takes another stab at science fiction. That would make me a happy camper.
Rating: The 2008 Russian National Team. Led by Andrei Arshavin, the Russians smashed their way to the semi-finals of the Euro, humbling the highly fancied Dutch along the way (boo), before finally going down in glorious defeat to ascendant Spain. Khalakovo doesn’t go down in defeat to anything, but does dazzle unexpectedly and involve vodka.